note: entire contents copyleft 2005 by Will Stackman
Reviewed by Will Stackman
Throughout the two hours of this production, the intensity of Aleksei Arbuzov 's "The Promise" (1965), a late Soviet-era drama, is sustained by an impressive concentration on character. The first act begins with a socialist-realist equivalent of "meeting cute"; two teenagers separated from their families in the winter siege of Leningrad seeking shelter in a bombed out apartment building. Sixteen-year old Marat, Walter Belenky, clambers into where he used to live to find fifteen-year old Lika, Sara Petersen, asleep on the only piece of furniture she hasn't burned yet. Midway through their survival during the first act, the new friends nurse a third stray back to health, aspiring poet Leonidik, Jedediah Baker. The young people form a bond where friendship competes with complex mutual attraction. Both young men will soon join the military. Lika, whose mother is an Army doctor, becomes a local nurse.
The second act sees both Marat and Leonidik just returned from the wars, still with their ambitions. Lika, now a medical student, can't really decide between them, but Marat leaves. Thirteen years later in the third act, after the fall of Stalin, he returns and things change once again. "The Promise" sets the lives of these intentionally ordinary young people against the immense sweep of history and its human cost, a modern "War and Peace" in a very small flat. Belenky, seen this fall in Albee's "The Play About the Baby" for Mill6 shows the virtue of his MXAT training in the honesty and strength of his conflicted character, committed to rebuilding, unable to express his deepest feelings. Baker, with a varied background, places his poet quite believably in a more superficial world, more engaged with words. Petersen, a recent Emerson grad, presents a young woman drawn along by circumstance, a social middleground between the two. Emigre director Lilia Levitina creates a compelling drama from this triangle, using the strengths of three different acting styles. She also takes advantage of Arbuzov's symbolist tendencies to strengthen the drama.
Levitina's helped by a set and costumes from her design team, who bring their own Soviet backgrounds to the project. Maria Koreneva, Leonid Ossenyand Irina Romm have created a triangular raked space with walls indicated by textured uprights. These are askew during Act 1; upright supporting symbolic windows for the rest of the play. Furniture and props effectively present the period and the culture. Costumes are even more important in indicating period and condition, from the ragged layering of wartime winter to military garb to late '50s continentalism. Scene changes accomplished by the cast are illuminated by black and white newsreel footage projected over the set with background music arranged by Emily Romm, one of Levitina's longtime collaborators. This include guitar improvisations by Mark Shmulevich in the spirit of the play and the times. The level of Basement on the Hill's production values has risen in execution though not intent since its beginnings in Newton.
Perhaps Levitina's theatre can grow into the Russian equivalent of Sugan. There's certainly a swelling local community to form a base audience, not to mention a number of Boston theatregoers quite receptive to drama with an international viewpoint. Influences from the Russian theatre were crucial to the development of western theatre in the 20th century. American theatre is not only indebted to Stanislavski's approach to acting--even when his system has been misconstrued--but to design influences first trumpeted by Robert Edmund Jones, and practiced by refugees here throughout the '20s and '30s. Attention has been paid to the poetry of dissent, but 20th century Russian drama which hewed closer to the Party line, has remained largely untranslated. And current writers are almost invisible. There's certainly an opening for this material in our local theatre scene, not only from one-again St. Petersburg and Moscow, but from the capitols of the new republics, all heirs to this tradition.